Report on the talk ‘Japanese Avant-garde Calligraphy in Conversation with Prehistory’

Image: A boy drawing a face in the sand in the streets of Kyoto, snapshot of minute 02:10 in Pierre Alechinsky’s film Calligraphie Japonaise (1956)

On Thursday 21st of July, Dr Eugenia Bogdanova-Kummer, Lecturer in Japanese Arts, Culture, and Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, presented the online lecture entitled, ‘Japanese Avant-garde Calligraphy in Conversation with Prehistory’, as part of the Sainsbury Institute’s Third Thursday Lecture series. Based on her recent book, Bokujinkai: Japanese Calligraphy and the Postwar Avant-Garde (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2020), Bogdanova-Kummer discussed the complex and intertwined relationships between Euro-American primitivist abstraction and Japanese avant-garde calligraphy in the postwar period.

Bogdanova-Kummer began her talk by showing the works of Euro-American artists such as L. Alcopley, Pierre Alechinsky, Joan Miró and Robert Motherwell. They were abstract images but looked like a script or ideogram. Some of them were executed in ink on paper. According to Bogdanova-Kummer, from the late 1940s, Euro-American modernist painters developed an interest in finding a pure and primary form of human expression and produced numerous script-like primitivist abstract paintings. It did not take long for postwar Euro-American primitivism to reach Japan. As early as 1951, Pablo Picasso’s ceramic works were exhibited in Tokyo. Artists such as Alechinsky, Miró, and Isamu Noguchi visited Japan in the 1950s and 60s and formed networks with Japanese art communities.

Among the postwar Japanese art circles, abstract painter Hasegawa Saburō and calligrapher Ueda Sōkyū saw the growing interest in prehistoric and ancient script in the Western modern art as a prime opportunity for Japanese calligraphers to enter the international art scene. These two practitioners developed their own strategic theories, and both had a profound influence on the younger generation of avant-garde calligraphers, represented by the Bokujinkai (People of the Ink) group. With Hasegawa’s encouragement, Bokujinkai members, such as Inoue Yūichi, endeavoured to incorporate the prehistoric and ancient forms of Sino-Japanese script into their contemporary calligraphic works. In Inoue’s Fang Jiu Gao Evaluating Horses by Their True Nature, from 1952, the script component is an excerpt from a Chinese Song-period poem by Chen Yu Yi (which redirects the reader to an even earlier reference to Liezi from the fifth century BC) and the seven characters are floating in a space surrounded by the ink-rubbing of a tatami mat. Bogdanova-Kummer pointed out: ‘Inoue playfully rendered characters as a hybrid between painting and writing; but beyond that, Inoue’s calligraphy shows his artistic attempt to internalise the mindset of the ancient people who stood at the origins of writing’. Moreover, in the later version of Fang Jiu Gao Evaluating Horses (1952), Inoue added the image of a small girl (presumably Miró’s daughter), showing his engagement with the Euro-American counterparts’ primitivist attention to children’s art and creativity. Like Hasegawa, Ueda encouraged his fellow calligraphers to look at Sino-Japanese image sources of the distant past and to incorporate them into their art. In Lunyu (1953), the leading avant-garde calligrapher, Hidai Nankoku, for example, deconstructed the characters of the Chinese classical text and ‘decoded’ the meanings hidden behind the modern characters. According to Bogdanova-Kummer, ‘Hidai reconnects himself and his audience to the origin of Sinophone writing […] He reminds his viewers that the modern writing system originates in primordial ritual images and visualises the continuity between the prehistoric past and today’.

These Japanese calligraphers and painters (i.e., Hasegawa’s primitivist theory preceded Okamoto Tarō’s fascination with Jōmon earthenware vessels) developed the theoretical and visual framework of primitivism as a link between Japan and the international art scene. Their resulting primitivist works are surprisingly similar to that of Euro-American counterparts (especially Miró’s Untitled, from 1960, in the collection of the Sōgetsu Art Museum) and many images are almost interchangeable yet rooted in very different theoretical origins. Importantly, what differentiates postwar Japan’s primitivism from that of the West is that Japanese artists believed the Sino-Japanese prehistoric and ancient sources they referenced to be their cultural traditions that have been passed down uninterruptedly through the ages, and they hoped that by claiming such cultural authenticity Japan could attract global attention. Meanwhile, Euro-American modernist painters hoped to break away from modern civilisation by rejecting their own traditions and exploring foreign and ‘primitive’ sources. Furthermore, Bogdanova-Kummer argued: ‘whereas Euro-American primitivists were looking for new ways to “encode” reality into an entirely new visual language of image and script, Japanese archaist calligraphers were captivated by the idea of “decoding” the true reality hidden within the characters, under their millennia-polished abstracted form’. She also suggested: because the Japanese calligraphers internalised the East-West binary opposition and rejected to incorporate cultural and visual sources outside the ‘Eastern’ traditions into their art, they distanced their art even further from Euro-American primitivism.

From Alechinsky’s art film to Chinese oracle bone script to dogū figurines to postwar Japanese calligraphy and Euro-American abstract painting, Bogdanova-Kummer’s fascinating lecture took the audience to a journey spanning a wide range of material, spatial and temporal scales. The lecture was followed by a vibrant Q&A discussion, moderated by Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, the Research Director of the Sainsbury Institute. Bogdanova-Kummer is currently working on her second book project on the history of calligraphy modernisation in East Asia. I am sure I am not the only viewer who wanted to hear more of her delightful lecture!

Kimihiko Nakamura

PhD student at the Institute of East Asian Art History, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg, Germany